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Along the Ganges’ Mutable Banks, Portraits of People and Place

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Cows are transported across the river in Kakdwip, West Bengal.

“I’ve spent my entire life on the [banks] of the river,” Arko Datto says of growing up in the port city of Kolkata, India, about 96 miles from where the Ganges completes its more than 1,500-mile journey from the Himalaya and flows into the Bay of Bengal. The river has always held a fascination for him, so it’s no surprise that his first long-term project, Gangetic Interludes,explores the inextricable relationship between this epic body of water and the people who depend on it.

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Adesh Baba, the resident sadhu at the temple adjoining the crematorium in Bhagalpur, Bihar, sits with his faithful companion Rumu.
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A funeral procession heads toward the river in the state of Bihar, where the body will be cremated. The closer one’s connection to the river, says Datto, the faster one is considered to achieve emancipation from the endless cycle of birth and death.

“The river has this idea of something which is in permanent movement. It becomes the only constant while everything around it changes,” Datto says, referencing the kingdoms, civilizations, and empires that have come and gone along its banks. “I’m trying to bring about a synthesis of all of the varied aspects … to find a holistic picture of what the river stands for.”

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The islands in the north of Bengal are under threat from erosion. This has created a population of internal refugees who lead a life in perpetual motion, shifting from one island to another, according to Datto.
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Siblings Shahrukh and Tuhina Khatum take a Sunday evening stroll along the riverbank in West Bengal.

Datto’s photographic journey began in Allahabad during the winter of 2013. “What struck me was how low the river is at that point, so you see these vast expanses of sand flats, mudflats, in the middle of the river, and the river trickling down … and then you see these immense expanses of sky on top,” he says.

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“India’s quest to become a superpower requires huge amounts of raw material for construction, notably sand,” writes Datto of this mining operation in Sahebganj, Bihar. “Sand mining is an illegal activity in India and has been a major problem along the Ganges River.”
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Mohammad Adnan faces the mosque along the Tehri Hydroelectric Dam in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand. The construction of the dam has led to the flooding of over a hundred towns and villages, according to Datto.

This vast and open expanse informed how he would proceed. “I wanted to give an accurate feeling of what it feels like when you’re in front of the river … and you have these miniscule dramas of life playing out in the landscapes,” he says.

To complement this, he also began taking more intimate portraits of the people he met during his journey, aiming to represent the diverse populations for whom the river is a touchpoint and a source of life—a place to worship, mourn, work, relax, and live.

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A woman waits for tourists where the river meets the sea in Bakkhali, West Bengal.
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At low tide, people living along the riverbanks in Haridwar, Uttrakhand, use sticks to clobber and catch fish.

As Datto looked deeper at this relationship, he began to appreciate the real-world impact that humans and the river have on each other. “You hear a lot about how the Ganga is dying,” he says, “And then you come across this profusion of life that goes on all around.” Problems such as industrial and human pollution, the effects of infrastructure development, and erosion became issues he felt compelled to include in his 360-degree look at a complex and dynamic situation.

“The river is a thread which binds diverse people together,” Datto says. “I am one of those people bound by that thread, trying to find where that thread is, how strong it is.“

Follow Arko Datto on his website.

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